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Kenston cagers send Hilltoppers fetching pail of water, 58-56

Published in The Chagrin Valley Times
December 20, 2018
Tony Lange

Winning three straight games decided by single possessions against league opponents, the Kenston boys basketball team no doubt has to be sinking its free throws in crunch time.

Despite graduating their entire starting unit from a year ago, the Bombers defeated Western Reserve Conference foes Madison, 76-73, on Dec. 7, Riverside, 51-49, on Dec. 11, and Chardon, 58-56, in their most recent nail-biter on Friday night in Bainbridge.

But, clinging to a two-point lead against the Hilltoppers, Kenston made three trips to the charity stripe in the final 28 seconds and came up empty on all three visits. Defense and a game-winning layup by 6-foot-4 senior forward Blaise Gorski are what got the dub.

Even though the Bombers finished the night 13-of-27 from the line, they found a way to grind out their third straight victory to improve to 3-2 with a 3-0 mark in the WRC. Chardon dropped to 1-4 with a 0-3 mark.

“The whole season we’ve struggled for free throws,” Kenston first-year head coach Derrick DeJarnette said. “That’s an understatement. That’s been going on the whole season, man. That’s something we have to get better at if we want to continue our winning streak, because sooner or later it’ll be a team that, if you miss your foul shots, you’re going to come up with the L. So, we really don’t want that.”

DeJarnette took over the helm after former head coach Matt Vespa went 42-29 in three seasons with the Bombers, including a 15-9 campaign with five senior starters a year ago. DeJarnette was the varsity assistant last season and the junior varsity coach the year before that.

A 1994 Kenston graduate, DeJarnette was an all-Ohio special mention and WRC league MVP his senior year. He is still the Bombers’ all-time leading scorer with 1,378 career points, averaging 18.1 points in 76 varsity games as a four-year starter, as well as the all-time assists leader with 248.

Not to mention, his father, James, attended Kenston in the 1970s, his son, DJ, is a 2018 graduate who started for the Bombers last season, and his daughter, Catara, is a varsity freshman starter for the Lady Bombers this season.

“I think it’s been a blessing,” DeJarnette said about taking the reins at his alma mater. “It’s a dream come true to be able to give back to your community where you came up and everyone showed you so much love. I’m just trying to give back to the kids and the community. That’s it.”

While Kenston is 3-0 in the WRC, the Bombers lost their season opener in an overtime battle against Cleveland Rhodes, 75-74, as part of the Cleveland Heights Great Lakes Classic on Dec. 2, and then the Bombers lost a 76-52 affair against Benedictine, which is 6-0 and touted as one of the best Division II programs in Ohio.

But the Kenston cagers weren’t just trying to get acclimated to a new head coach and the graduation of their entire starting unit. They also entered the season without four players who were busy winning a football state championship, including 6-foot-1 starting senior guard Bransen Stanley and a trio of rotation guys: 5-foot-8 junior Javion Middleton, 5-foot-10 junior Jack Porter and 5-foot-10 freshman Andy Kooser.

“The two games that we dropped early, well, the first game we should have pulled out,” DeJarnette said. “But the second game against Benedictine, we really needed our football players against that, and we would have had a better chance. We hung in there for two quarters (29-28), but they came out of halftime and really exploded.”

Kenston’s top returners from a year ago, however, are 6-foot-7 senior forward Ryan Long and 6-foot-4 Gorski, who scored the winning bucket against Chardon on Friday. Both gentlemen earned regular minutes in the varsity rotation last season.

Long, in particular, has led the Bombers’ scoring department in each of their three victories, dropping 24 points with three treys against Madison, 21 points against Riverside and 19 points against Chardon.

“The thing is, he can go in the post or he can shoot the ball really well,” DeJarnette said of Long. “So, you’ve got to pick your poison with him. I might put him down low, I might bring him out. It all depends on what the other team is trying to do. He’s a guy who’s got to lead us to victory every game. I’m really counting on Ryan Long this year, heavily.”

Meanwhile, 6-foot-1 senior guard Jett Ransom, who scored eight points with a pair of 3-pointers against Chardon, and 6-foot junior guard Donovan Maynard also earned starting roles, and 6-foot-4 senior Luke Jourdian is the first big off the bench.

But it was Middleton’s defensive pressure that made a difference late in the game on Friday, DeJarnette said. The junior guard capitalized on a put-back bucket and then collected a steal with a fast-break layup to provide the Bombers a 47-46 lead with 2:47 remaining.

“Javion Middleton really forced the issue with the guards, but just switching it up against Chardon, I think, kind of rattled them a little bit,” DeJarnette said. “But, like I said, that could have went down any way. Anyone could have won that game. It just came out our way.”

Kenston’s Maynard got fouled off another Hilltopper turnover and sank a pair at the line for a 49-46 upper hand with 2:45 remaining, but Chardon went on a 6-0 run to take a 52-49 advantage with 2:06 to play.

Long provided an answer on a 3-pointer to tie the game with 1:10 remaining. Then Long went back to work with a lay-in off an assist from Middleton and sank a pair from the line on the Bombers’ next possession for a 56-52 lead with 50 seconds to play.

But, with Kenston 2018 graduate Michael Swartz no longer dressing for games, after sinking a program record 83.8 percent of his free throws on 68 attempts last season, Long’s freebies would be the last the Bombers’ would make against Chardon.

Although the Hilltoppers tied it up at 56 with 21 seconds to play, the Bombers grinded out the victory with Gorski’s layup and defensive stops on Chardon’s final two possessions.

“I just think guys are still trying to gel,” DeJarnette said. “Like I said, we’ve got the football players coming back, and we’re just trying to gel what we’re trying to do. And my bench, just everyone is trying to get on the same page. So, it’s been a lot of mistakes, it’s been too many turnovers, but we’ve been grinding it out at the end to get the W.”

Up next, Kenston will travel to take on WRC foe Willoughby South, which is also 3-0 in league play, at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

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